Story from last night’s 89-76 win over Mercer:
–Courier & Press: http://bit.ly/1apKpQf
–Monday night’s win was a big one for this young Aces team. Mercer is a perennial 20-win team, won its conference last season, returns 11 players and starts five seniors; in essence, the Bears are experienced and a solid mid-major team, having beaten Seton Hall and lost by three points to Texas. Beating Mercer by 13 points was also very impressive. Though it’s early in the season, this win will go a long way come March, when UE’s resume is being looked over in consideration for postseason play. What’ll be more impressive, though, is if the Aces can follow up this win with another one Wednesday, when they take on two-time Horizon League champion Valparaiso.
–I thought D.J. Balentine wasn’t going to be able to keep up his 29 point per game average, but he surprised me. I stand by the fact that it’s not going to be feasible to do this the remainder of the season, but he impressed both me and head coach Marty Simmons, especially in his second half performance. Balentine had just nine points at the half and wasn’t getting the looks he was hoping for, but he continued to play hard and some shots opened up in the second half — he went 4-of-7while the team shot an impressive 61.9 percent in the second stanza.
–The biggest thing I noticed was the offensive adjustments UE had between the first and second half. Mercer was attacking the paint successfully early and did a great job with ball rotation to spread the defense and find the open shot — how the Bears controlled the first half took a lead into the locker room. The Aces, though, did the same thing in the second half. UE had poor ball movement in the first half and didn’t do a good job cutting or screening, but it seemed to get in a better rhythm in the second half, a lot of it thanks to guards slashing to the basket or driving off the dribble. It’s impressive to see a young team make those adjustments like that.
–Again, free throw shooting helped UE down the stretch, and it’s probably going to be one of the team’s strengths this season. The Aces went 9-of-10 in the final minute and a half to maintain the double-digit lead and were 31-of-38 from the foul line in the game. Balentine and freshman guard Duane Gibson were the biggest beneficiaries Monday night, shooting a combined 25-for-27 from the line. Both guards did a good job creating for themselves, and I think Monday was the first time we saw Gibson consistently (and successfully) attack the basket. He should continue to do so.
–Sophomore forward Egidijus Mockevicius is still quiet on offense, but he had a pretty big impact down the stretch in Monday night’s game. After the Bears had cut UE’s lead to just two points midway through the second half, Mockevicius had three rebounds, two points and one of his three blocks in the four minute stretch when the Aces went on a 10-2 run to go up by 10 points. The sophomore was getting outmatched in the paint early in both halves, but when he returned late in the second half, he did the little things that made his presence known. Points should come for Mockevicius, but until he can stay on the floor a bit more — he had 19 points and picked up his third foul to open the second half — he’ll be the cleanup guy, which the Aces were glad to have Monday night.
–Gibson on his career night: “I’m trying to do my best. With D.J. out there, they’re double-teaming him and it leaves open shots for me, so I’m happy.”
–Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman on attacking the paint: “Second half we couldn’t do that because we couldn’t get to the same spots. They did a good job adjusting, but we were still open. The game changed and the physicality of the game was interesting, so it wasn’t the same the whole game.
–Hoffman on the team’s second-half adjustments: “We took a few open threes, and second half we didn’t move it as well as we did the first half. We should’ve attacked and made the kicks, we were taking them a little early and got a little antsy when we got behind.”
–UE head coach Marty Simmons’ opening statement: “Teally proud of our team. It wasn’t easy; it took a lot of effort. … Just proud of them, we have a quick turnaround here and we need another effort similar to this.”
–Simmons on the team’s rebounding (UE outrebounded Mercer, 36-28): “Boo Gibson went way up there and got one of those last rebounds. We’ve been blessed that we have point guards who can athletically go get the basketball on the glass. … He’s doing a terrific job of going outside his area and rebound. I thought Egidijus did a really good job of rebounding the basketball. There were a couple of plays in there where he didn’t finish, but just kept playing. Had a great blocked shot, took the charge.”